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Winter Commuting: Part 1 – The Basics

Commuting is one of the most rewarding things you can do on a bike.  I speak from experience – I commute as much as possible, in all weather, by choice.  I have a car.  I don’t have a DUI.  I just choose biking.  Why?

  • It’s a lot more fun than driving a car.
  • It’s Zen time.  Think, relax, decompress.  Let it all go.
  • It makes you feel good.  That whole endorphin talk is actually true.
  • Get your training/exercise and transportation all at once.
  • It’s one less car to a better world.

Commuting is not hard to do.  You need (1) a working bike that fits your needs, (2) a couple key accessories, and (3) the motivation to get up early enough for the morning ride in.  Here at Tree Fort, we want to help.  We aren’t really going to be making wake-up calls to get you out of bed in the morning (we could probably be bribed on a case by case basis), but we definitely can help with the first two points.

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This is a three part series on cold weather commuting.  Though we are in the business of selling stuff, our real goal is to get more people out riding on bikes.  Therefore this first post will focus on the basics of commuting; the bare necessities to get you there and back in cold weather with ease.  Part 2 and 3 will go through bike parts, accessories, and clothing that will make your commute more comfortable and enjoyable.

The Bike

Of course, you need a bike.  Depending on region, roads, and distance, bike needs will differ from person to person.

  • Road bikes are good for a high speed, long distance commutes on good roads in warm areas.  Not the best for cold weather commuting.
  • Cyclocross bikes are great for mid to long commutes on dirt or rough roads, trails, and other variable terrain, while still offering good speed.
  • Mountain bikes work great in nearly all commute applications – they are just a little slower, so are better for mid-length distances.
  • Hybrids are great commuters.  They are comfortable, dependable, and can handle most roads, paths, and trails with ease.  Most can accept racks, which makes carrying gear a lot easier.

No matter which style of bike you choose to commute with, it must be in good working condition, and expected to get dirty, wet, and receive a good amount of abuse (hint: your carbon time trial bike is probably not the best option).   This is why hybrids, mid-range mountain bikes, and cyclocross bikes (over $400, under $1500) are good bikes to commute on.

Another reason why hybrids and mountain bikes work well is because of the wide tire size.  For ice, snow, and rain, the bigger the tire, the better.  Try to go for the widest tires you can fit in your fork and frame, and go with studded tires if your bike and wallet can allow it.

The Route

Choosing the perfect route in winter months is not that much different than riding in the summer.  Remember – this isn’t hard!  Just takes a little thought.  Here are some ideas to get you thinking:

  • Safest Routes. Multi-Use Paths and Bike Lanes are generally the best choices, as long as they are kept plowed and safe year round.  Use them if you are lucky enough that your area has them available.
  • Dirt Roads. If you live on or near dirt roads that parallel main roads, give them a shot.  Low traffic on these roads makes it safer, and the dirt road gets less slick than paved roads.
  • Side Roads. Roads through subdivisions, industrial or technology “parks,” and other back roads can be a safer, more direct route.
  • Sometimes, longer is safer.  Don’t always focus on the fastest way to get there.  Take the paths, bike lanes, side roads, and dirt roads even if it adds a couple miles to your commute.  It is safer and more fun to ride without the traffic, so take the longer route if it means you get safety and peace of mind.
  • Ride Smart. If you need to ride busy roads that don’t have bike lanes, then go against your instinct and take the lane.  It’s safer.  Plus, in the winter, drivers are generally more considerate and will give you plenty of room.

The Bare Essentials

Further episodes will get into detail of clothing, accessories, and components that will make the commute more enjoyable.  But to get started, here are the basics:

  • Clothing.  Make sure feet, hands, and head are very well insulated.  Balaclavas are great for keeping the face warm.  Legs, arms, and torso should use with moisture wicking base layers, and insulating/windproof outer layers.  Use multiple layers for adjustability and warmth.
  • Pedals.  Mountain style clipless pedals are ok, as long as you use booties with your bike shoes.  Otherwise, flat pedals and winter boots work great to keep the feet warm.
  • Lights.  Good lighting is essential – the winter nights get dark earlier, and winter mornings stay dark later.  For riding on well lit roads, the Planet Bike Blaze and Super Flash light set works great for cars to see you clearly.  If you are on dark roads and paths, use the Light & Motion Vega 120 headlight for great visibility at a reasonable price.
  • Repair Kit.  Have a multi-tool, patch kit or tube, and mini-pump on hand just in case.  The Park Tool BTR-1 is a great option if any mechanical problems arise.

So that’s the skinny on commuting in cold weather.  Commuting is not hard, even in the cold months.  All it takes is a good bike, a couple essential accessories, and the motivation to get it done.  If you are on the fence, just give it a shot, and after the first two or three commutes, you’ll realize you’ve made the right choice.

Stay tuned for two more posts focusing on clothing, bike parts, and accessories that can enhance your cold weather commute.

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